One overlooked reason for today’s obesity epidemic is a stress-induced disorder known as “emotional eating.” Consuming certain foods, especially high-glycemic carbohydrates, bolsters “feel-good” brain neurotransmitters such as serotonin that are depleted by stress. While increasing brain serotonin levels through high-carbohydrate meals can help elevate mood in the short term, ingesting ever-greater amounts of dietary carbohydrates often leads to weight gain and a cascade of ill health effects throughout the body.
To stand any chance of success, programs designed to help people reach and maintain an optimal body weight must address the multifaceted biochemical and psychological processes that contribute to excess weight gain. Fortunately, nutritional scientists have identified a combination of novel nutrients that disrupt these processes in multiple ways—suppressing brain chemicals that trigger the urge to overeat, activating hormones that convey to the brain a sense of satiety and fullness, and optimizing metabolic processes that contribute to increased fat burning and lean body mass.
In this article, we explore how these nutrients attack the multiple mechanisms that promote unwanted weight gain, and describe the results of a Life Extension clinical study designed to demonstrate their efficacy when used in conjunction with a comprehensive weight-loss strategy.
How Emotions Trigger Food Cravings
It’s happened to everyone. Most of the time, we are able to successfully control our food intake. We select vegetables and fruits with a high nutritional value. We take care to consume sufficient amounts of lean protein and fiber. We balance our caloric intake with our daily caloric expenditure in a way that ensures a stable body weight. Then something happens to make us stressed or depressed—and we head straight for the Häagen-Dazs.
Scientists refer to this phenomenon as emotional eating—a way that many people cope with negative feelings like depression, anxiety, stress, and boredom. People who normally restrain their food consumption lose self-discipline when faced with stressors that seem beyond their control. This pushes them to make dietary choices that are detrimental in the long term, but that in the short term offer immediate gratification and relief (albeit temporary) from negative emotions. In fact, several studies have shown that people under chronic stress tend to gain weight over time, due to both stress-related endocrine changes and aberrant coping behaviors that center on food.
In general, scientists have found that eating a meal alters your mood and emotional predisposition, typically reducing irritability and increasing calmness.1 A study in Psychosomatic Medicine confirmed that people tend to consume food in order to self-medicate their feelings of stress or anxiety. Thirty-four men and women were told that they needed to prepare a four-minute speech that would be recorded by video equipment and later assessed by the researchers for its quality. This produced so much stress in the participants that their blood pressure increased and their mood worsened. An additional 34 volunteers served as a control group. All participants were then allowed to eat as much as they wanted of a selection of foods. The outcome? The stressed group consumed 88% more sweet, fatty food than did the control group. Another study found that the most important psychological variable that determines how much ice cream people consume is their tendency toward emotional eating.
The winter holidays often make emotional eating even worse. According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, 41% of women eat for comfort during the holidays, compared to 31% who do so during the rest of the year. Among men, 25% report comfort eating over the holidays, compared to 19% who do so the rest of the year. These results are closely related to stress levels: 44% of women and 31% of men report increased stress during the holiday season. Clearly, increasing one’s food consumption is a very common coping mechanism for both men and women.
Scientists believe these choices are not made solely because of the pleasing taste of these foods. Carbohydrate-rich, protein-poor meals allow greater uptake of the amino acid tryptophan into the brain, where it serves as a precursor for synthesis of the brain neurotransmitter known as serotonin. Consuming these foods can also relieve stress by stimulating the release of brain opioids known as endorphins, which induce a sense of pleasure, and dopamine, another brain neurotransmitter that underpins the positive reward system, including the anticipation of pleasure. While this eating strategy may be useful in reducing feelings of stress in the short term, chronic intake of these foods can lead to weight gain and other health-damaging effects.
Peptides and hormones such as cholecystokinin (CCK), glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), leptin, and peptide YY (PYY) can also influence hunger levels, sometimes triggering increased food intake—whether you need the calories or not.
Successful manipulation of these neurotransmitters, hormones, and peptides can therefore help prevent episodes of emotional eating, reducing the impact of a stressful lifestyle on your waistline. In the long run, continued management of these variables can ensure that you are able to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight that will contribute to a longer life.
As health-conscious adults seeking to live long and productive lives, we need to learn how to manipulate these signals our brains receive in a way that will allow us to control our caloric intake. Life Extension’s scientists have identified three critical nutrients—green oat extract, pinolenic acid, and conjugated linolenic acid (CLA)—that can help us achieve this goal. These nutrients work together to promote satiety—the condition of being full to the point of satisfaction—while reducing the tendency toward emotional eating, enabling us to adhere to a healthy diet that promotes health and longevity.
Green Oat Extract Inhibits Troublesome Brain Chemicals
One natural product that has shown great promise in easing emotional stress and nervous energy is green oat extract. This botanical agent positively influences your brain chemistry by increasing the action of two chemical messengers that enhance positive feelings, helping you to resist tempting foods. Its invigorating actions also promote a sense of well-being that can help strengthen your will power to follow a healthy diet and lifestyle program.
Wild oat (Avena sativa) has been used for thousands of years as both a food and medicinal agent. As early as the Middle Ages, herbalists recommended green oat to enhance mood and promote a sharp, clear mind. In the past decade, the German Commission E Monographs—a leading authority on modern herbal medicine—noted that this botanical remedy helps reduce stress, anxiety, and tension. Green oats are also considered useful as a tonic and restorative remedy to treat nervous exhaustion.
Today, scientists are uncovering the mechanisms by which green oat extract works to relieve stress and promote well-being. Laboratory studies have found that wild oat extract significantly inhibits two enzymes that are closely related to mood states: monoamine oxidase B (MAO-B) and phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4). MAO-B is responsible for the breakdown of dopamine, and drugs that lessen its activity are frequently used to treat symptoms of depression. Inhibiting PDE4, on the other hand, helps to boost levels of cyclic AMP (cAMP), an important secondary chemical messenger in cells. This may help promote the positive feelings that can decrease emotional eating. By promoting mental and physical resilience and reducing nervous tension, wild green oat extract thus disrupts the link between emotional stress and the urge to raid the refrigerator.
EMOTIONAL EATING AND WEIGHT LOSS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Pinolenic Acid Decreases Hunger and Increases Satiety
Overeating is a common result of stress and heightened emotions. When you are feeling down or frenzied, sugary or fatty foods often hit the spot. To limit your intake of these high-calorie foods, you need to send your brain hormonal signals that you have eaten enough. The oil of the Korean pine nut contains a nutrient known as pinolenic acid that enables you to do precisely that.
The process of eating triggers specific reactions in the body that suppress appetite cravings in the brain. For example, during digestive processes, the intestines release satiety hormones such as cholecystokinin (CCK) and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). These circulating hormones convey information about food intake and appetite to the brain pathways that control eating.
CCK is produced in response to partially digested food (called chyme) and certain fibers leaving the stomach to enter the small intestine. CCK slows down gastric emptying and reduces appetite and food intake. It also stimulates the contraction of the gallbladder, releasing bile needed to emulsify dietary fats. GLP-1 is released after a meal containing fat or carbohydrates. It also delays gastric emptying, contributing to its ability to promote satiety while reducing food consumption and appetite. Together, ideal levels of these two hormones can make a significant impact on the amount of food you eat, with resulting benefits for body-fat reduction.
A number of scientists have confirmed the biological functions of these hormones by infusing physiological levels of CCK and GLP-1 into the body. Two studies published in the American Journal of Physiology substantiate CCK’s benefits. CCK was shown to increase fullness while decreasing the desire to eat. A Scandinavian study found that a GLP-1 infusion after a small breakfast increased feelings of satiety and fullness so much that food intake at an unrestricted lunch dropped by 12%. However, there is evidence that obesity down-regulates the release of GLP-1, which may result in the consumption of a larger number of calories to elicit a “normal” GLP-1 satiety signal. This would help to perpetuate a person’s weight problem unless an alternative means of boosting GLP-1 levels could be found.
Fortunately, scientists have discovered that pinolenic acid, a fatty acid naturally found in high concentrations in the Korean pine nut, can dramatically increase CCK and GLP-1 levels. Researchers in the Netherlands conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial on 18 overweight women in their fifties. All 18 volunteers fasted overnight, and then half took 3 grams of a pine nut extract providing 450 mg of pinolenic acid, while the other half consumed a placebo containing olive oil. The volunteers then ate a light breakfast of two slices of bread and marmalade. The scientists drew blood and measured hormones associated with hunger, satiety, and eating behavior at baseline and thereafter at regular intervals for four hours following the initial dose. The women also provided assessments of their hunger at each interval.
Supplementation with pinolenic acid produced impressive increases in satiety hormones: total CCK production rose by 60% during the study period, while GLP-1 levels increased by 25%. Thirty minutes after taking the supplement, the participants’ desire to eat had dropped by 29%, and their prospective food intake (what they planned to eat) declined by 36%. Pinolenic acid’s remarkable ability to decrease hunger and diminish food intake could have profound effects for individuals seeking to limit their calorie intake.
Pinolenic acid may also benefit cardiovascular health. It has been found to lower potentially harmful low-density lipoprotein (LDL). A Japanese study demonstrated that pinolenic acid can lower blood pressure levels in animal subjects. Since overweight people often have elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, the use of pinolenic acid clearly offers multifaceted benefits.
CLA Reduces Weight, Improves Body Composition
Another reason why people tend to gain weight is that the body is programmed to store surplus calories as body fat. While this made a great deal of sense when we were living in caves and often forced to go for days without food, this tendency is counterproductive today, when food is readily available around the clock. By reducing the body’s tendency to store extra calories as fat and promoting fat burning, it is easier to optimize body weight and composition. In study after study, conjugated linoleic acid, commonly known as CLA, has produced these very effects, while simultaneously increasing feelings of fullness and satiety.
Conjugated linoleic acid consists of paired derivatives of linoleic acid, an unsaturated fatty acid. It is found in the meat and milk products of cows, goats, and sheep. However, given the high fat content of these animal sources, supplementation with CLA is an attractive option.
Various studies have demonstrated CLA’s benefits. In a clinical trial in Norway, one year of supplementation with CLA markedly reduced body fat mass in healthy overweight adults. In this double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 180 male and female volunteers, aged 18-65, consumed either 3.6 grams of CLA or a placebo daily. They were instructed to continue with their normal dietary and exercise habits, which the researchers monitored throughout the study. Despite the fact that their diet and physical activity levels were unchanged, the volunteers taking CLA made improvements in body composition, reducing their fat mass by 8.7% while increasing their lean body mass by 1.8%. The greatest reductions were in those who had the highest body mass index (BMI) at the study’s onset.
Another study demonstrated that CLA can produce body-fat reductions in only six months. When researchers gave 3.4 grams of CLA or a placebo daily to 118 overweight and obese subjects, body fat mass in the CLA group dropped by 5.6%. It thus appears that much of CLA’s benefit is obtained within the first six months of supplementation. The scientists also measured where the fat loss occurred. In women, the greatest reduction was in the legs and trunk, whereas in men, the loss was most pronounced in the trunk (including the abdomen). Waist circumference was reduced by 2 centimeters (nearly an inch), resulting in an improvement in the waist-to-hip ratio (an indicator of abdominal obesity). All these positive changes occurred without any loss of lean muscle tissue—the opposite of what takes place with most weight-loss programs.
Even better, scientists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison discovered that supplementing with 3.2 grams of CLA daily for six months prevented holiday weight gain. While the placebo group added pounds around the middle during the holidays, those in the CLA group lost fat from August to October, and kept it off through the end of January. While CLA had no effect on physical activity, dietary intake, or resting metabolic rate, it significantly decreased the number of negative emotions reported by the subjects. Perhaps the realization that CLA kept their waistlines in check allowed them to enjoy the season more!
Studies suggest that CLA is effective for a number of reasons. A 13-week study found that it increased feelings of fullness and satiety, and decreased feelings of hunger, compared to a placebo.27 CLA has also been shown to reduce fat uptake into the adipocytes (fat cells). This effect is thought to promote an increased flux of fatty acids to the muscle cells, boosting the use of fat for fuel. The result would be a sparing of liver glycogen stores, which various researchers believe may contribute to satiety signals. Some scientists also suggest that CLA-induced changes in gene expression promote apoptosis (cell death) in the adipocytes, helping to reduce the number of cells that can store fatty acids.
Take Control of Your Body Weight!
As tens of millions of overweight Americans know all too well, today’s high-stress world lends itself to the compensatory comforts of emotional eating. Try as we may to avoid them, there are times when we seemingly are driven to consume foods that gratify our emotional needs but are counterproductive to optimal health and longevity.
The good news is, modern nutritional science is uncovering strategies that can help us resist these urges. Nutrients such as green oat extract, pinolenic acid, and CLA can help reduce appetite and improve mood, supporting us in the struggle to maintain healthy eating habits. With their proven benefits of promoting fat loss and increased lean muscle mass, these nutrients can provide a decisive advantage in achieving an ideal body weight. And even if we do decide to partake in a little comfort food from time to time, the diminished hunger signals we experience as a result of ingesting these nutrients should help to keep those extra portions within reason.